GMAT Tip of the Week: Big Sean Says Your GMAT Score Will Bounce Back

Welcome back to Hip Hop Month in the GMAT Tip of the Week space, where naturally, we woke up in beast mode (with your author legitimately wishing he was bouncing back to D-town from LAX this weekend, but blog duty calls!).

If you have a car stereo or Pandora account, you’ve undoubtedly heard Big Sean talking about bouncing back this month. “Bounce Back” is a great anthem for anyone hitting a rough patch – at work, in a relationship, after a rough day for your brackets during next week’s NCAA tournament – but this isn’t a self-help, “it’s always darkest before dawn,” feel-good article. Big Sean has some direct insight into the GMAT scoring algorithm with Bounce Back, and if you pay attention, you can leverage Bounce Back (off the album “I Decided” – that’ll be important, too) to game-plan your test day strategy and increase your score.

So, what’s Big Sean’s big insight?

The GMAT scoring (and question delivery) algorithm is designed specifically so that you can “take an L” and bounce back. And if you understand that, you can budget your time and focus appropriately. The test is designed so that just about everybody misses multiple questions – the adaptive system serves you problems that should test your upper threshold of ability, and can also test your lower limit if you’re not careful.

What does that mean? Say you, as Big Sean would say, “take an L” (or a loss) on a question. That’s perfectly fine…everyone does it. The next question should be a bit easier, providing you with a chance to bounce back. The delivery system is designed to use the test’s current estimate of your ability to deliver you questions that will help it refine that estimate, meaning that it’s serving you questions that lie in a difficulty range within a few percentile points of where it thinks you’re scoring.

If you “take an L” on a problem that’s even a bit below your true ability, missing a question or two there is fine as long as it’s an outlier. No one question is a perfect predictor of ability, so any single missed question isn’t that big of a deal…if you bounce back and get another few questions right in and around that range, the system will continue to test your upper threshold of ability and give you chances to prove that the outlier was a fluke.

The problem comes when you don’t bounce back. This doesn’t mean that you have to get the next question right, but it does mean that you can’t afford big rough patches – a run of 3 out of 4 wrong or 4 out of 5 wrong, for example. At that point, the system’s estimate of you has to change (your occasional miss isn’t an outlier anymore) and while you can still bounce back, you now run the risk of running out of problems to prove yourself. As the test serves you questions closer to its new estimate of you, you’re not using the problems to “prove how good you are,” but instead having to spend a few problems proving you’re “not that bad, I promise!”

So, okay. Great advice – “don’t get a lot of problems wrong.” Where’s the real insight? It can be found in the lyrics to “Bounce Back”:

Everything I do is righteous
Betting on me is the right risk
Even in a ***** crisis…

During the test you have to manage your time and effort wisely, and that means looking at hard questions and determining whether betting on that question is the right risk. You will get questions wrong, but you also control how much you let any one question affect your ability to answer the others correctly. A single question can hurt your chances at the others if you:

  • Spend too much time on a problem that you weren’t going to get right, anyway
  • Let a problem get in your head and distract you from giving the next one your full attention and confidence

Most test-takers would be comfortable on section pacing if they had something like 3-5 fewer questions to answer, but when they’re faced with the full 37 Quant and 41 Verbal problems they feel the need to rush, and rushing leads to silly mistakes (or just blindly guessing on the last few problems). And when those silly mistakes pile up and become closer to the norm than to the outlier, that’s when your score is in trouble.

You can avoid that spiral by determining when a question is not the right risk! If you recognize in 30-40 seconds (or less) that you’re probably going to take an L, then take that L quickly (put in a guess and move on) and bank the time so that you can guarantee you’ll bounce back. You know you’re taking at least 5 Ls on each section (for most test-takers, even in the 700s that number is probably closer to 10) so let yourself be comfortable with choosing to take 3-4 Ls consciously, and strategically bank the time to ensure that you can thoroughly get right the problems that you know you should get right.

Guessing on the GMAT doesn’t have to be a panic move – when you know that the name of the game is giving yourself the time and patience to bounce back, a guess can summon Big Sean’s album title, “I Decided,” as opposed to “I screwed up.” (And if you need proof that even statistics PhDs who wrote the GMAT scoring algorithm need some coaching with regard to taking the L and bouncing back, watch the last ~90 seconds of this video.)

So, what action items can you take to maximize your opportunity to bounce back?

Right now: pay attention to the concepts, question types, and common problem setups that you tend to waste time on and get wrong. Have a plan in mind for test day that “if it’s this type of problem and I don’t see a path to the finish line quickly, I’m better off taking the L and making sure I bounce back on the next one.”

Also, as you review those types of problems in your homework and practice tests, look for techniques you can use to guess intelligently. For many, combinatorics with restrictions is one of those categories for which they often cannot see a path to a correct answer. Those problems are easy to guess on, however! Often you can eliminate a choice or two by looking at the number of possibilities that would exist without the restriction (e.g. if Remy and Nicki would just patch up their beef and stand next to each other, there would be 120 ways to arrange the photo, but since they won’t the number has to be less than 120…). And you can also use that total to ask yourself, “Does the restriction take away a lot of possibilities or just a few?” and get a better estimate of the remaining choices.

On test day: Give yourself 3-4 “I Decided” guesses and don’t feel bad about them. If your experience tells you that betting your time and energy on a question is not the right risk, take the L and use the extra time to make sure you bounce back.

The GMAT, like life, guarantees that you’ll get knocked down a few times, but what you can control is how you respond. Accept the fact that you’re going to take your fair share of Ls, but if you’re a real one you know how to bounce back.

Getting ready to take the GMAT? We have free online GMAT seminars running all the time. And as always, be sure to follow us on Facebook, YouTubeGoogle+ and Twitter!

By Brian Galvin.

GMAT Tip of the Week

Divide and Conquer

(This is one of a series of GMAT tips that we offer on our blog.)

Rome wasn’t built in a day (which, when you think about it, isn’t a particularly worthwhile statement to make. Kids spend longer than that building treehouses and snowforts, yet people say that one of the greatest empires of all time wasn’t built in a day like they’re making an insightful statement. Such is the case with cliches…). Anything worth accomplishing takes multiple steps, and often times looking at the entire process is daunting enough to not want to begin, while looking at each individual step is just as overwhelming (“one down, thousands to go”).

On the GMAT, students have a tendency to wear down by seeing the process of completing sequences of 37 and 41 multiple choice questions in rapid succession, while others will monitor their pace-per-question on an ongoing basis, adding additional stress (and time-consuming pacing calculations) to an already exhausting process. With the quantitative section, for example, staring down a series of 37 questions in 75 minutes seems unmanageable, but trying to hold yourself to 2 minutes/question by breaking it down individually is a hard path to follow.

How can you best manage this process to keep yourself on pace, and to give yourself mental milestones to stay fresh? Look to one of the primary skills that the GMAT will feature: divisibility.

The 37 questions on the quantitative section break down quite nicely in to six sections of six, with a one-question “bonus” at the end*. It’s also a nice number for divisibility of time – with 75 minutes to complete the entire section, you can somewhat easily gauge your progress:

After question 6: 12:30 minutes
After 12: 25
After 18: 37:30
After 24: 50
After 30: 62:30
End of exam: 75

This schedule should be easy enough to remember if you want to jot down quick reminders to yourself, and helps you to break the test down in to either sixths or thirds so that you have built-in milestones to help you gauge your progress and feel a sense of accomplishment.

*NOTE: The creators of the GMAT confirm that there is a steep penalty for failing to answer a question – estimated at 5 percentile points for simply leaving one question unanswered. You must at least levy an answer to each question, but for pacing purposes, you may want to consider that having just enough time to guess on question 37 is at least acceptable, and having enough time to thoroughly complete it is ideal.

For more GMAT prep assistance, take a look at everything Veritas Prep has to offer. And, be sure to follow us on Twitter!

GMAT Mythbuster #2

As businessman extraordinaire Michael Scott said of Wikipedia, “anyone, anywhere can say whatever they want about any topic, so you know you’re getting the best possible information.” Such is life in the Internet age, in which the line between truth and fiction can often become blurred as rumors spread quickly and authoritatively at the speed of broadband.

As you prepare for the GMAT, you will likely be faced with a number of fallacies that seem to be conventional wisdom. Some are interesting topics for debate, others are incorrect but not woefully irresponsible, and others may significantly detract from your score.

This post is the second in a series that will debunk some of the more common myths that surround the GMAT. The truth is out there…

Myth: The first ten questions are more important than the remaining questions on either section.

Fact: All questions count the same toward your section score.

I’m not going out on much a limb here, admittedly – the Graduate Management Admissions Council takes care to debunk this myth in its book, the Official Guide for GMAT Review. However, this incorrect axiom may be the piece of GMAT mythology that has pervaded the conventional wisdom of test-takers the most, as the adaptive scoring nature of the GMAT has the power to confuse and intimidate many who take the test. Again, no less an authority than the creators of the GMAT themselves will explicitly state that each question counts for the same weight toward your score. So, knowing that, how can you use this to your advantage?

1) DO NOT plan to spend an undue amount of time on the initial questions (some believers of this fallacy advocate spending an additional 50% per question in the first ten, which could put you at a significant advantage later in the exam). Similarly, DO NOT invest an undue amount of emotional stress on those questions. If you cannot answer one, or answer one incorrectly, you’ll be able to bounce back on the next question; if you spend six minutes answering one correctly (or worse, six minutes and still make an error that causes you to miss the question), you won’t soon make that time up.

2) DO take an extra few seconds to double-check your answer to ensure that you haven’t made a silly mistake on an early question. At this point in the test, you can’t likely sacrifice extra minutes, but you can certainly invest extra seconds to ensure that you begin on the right track. Early in the test, you won’t know for certain whether you’ll have time left over at the end, but, if you do, you’d want to have used it to check your work carefully. If you need to guess on the last question or two because you used the time early in the test to double-check your work, that’s probably for the best (you’ll know it was time well spent if you catch even one error while checking your work). However, if you need to guess on several questions at the end, you’ve mismanaged your time. Essentially, the first ten questions aren’t worth enough each to blow off multiple questions at the end, but they’re worth enough collectively that you should invest some extra seconds to avoid mistakes, as you may still have that time remaining later in the exam, and a few extra minutes left over can only be used on that last question.

3) DO NOT simply take the above suggestion and run with it. Rather, DO take multiple practice tests before the actual GMAT so that you know within a reasonable estimate where you’ll stand on test day. If you routinely have several minutes left over on a section in your practice tests, by all means invest some extra time in an early question that requires that investment of time. If you find yourself regularly pressed for time, you’ll want to adapt accordingly.